Les Mots by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

Les Mots

£1.99 from Oxfam

I picked up this book in an Oxfam shop during one of my many travels around the country.  It caught my eye because at the time I was looking for something small to read and the name ‘Jean-Paul Sartre’ was one I recognised from reading some Simone de Beauvoir’s work.  This was my first foray into reading anything by Sartre and I am not sure if I will read anything else of his.

The book is conveniently divided into two parts.  The first part is predominantly autobiographical and concentrates largely on his childhood upbringing.  His father died when he was just 18 months old so his mother with nowhere else to go moved in with her father in an apartment in the centre of Meudons west of Paris.

His mother was related to both George and Albert Schweitzer so it is not surprising that Jean-Paul, with the help of his Grandfather and mother would become a famous philosopher and writer reaching the heights of being awarded the Nobel Prize but turning it down on the grounds that a writer ‘should not allow himself to be turned into an institution’.

Life in the apartment with his Grandfather and mother was warm, comfortable and loving.  His childhood appeared to be very happy at this stage of his life.  His Grandfather, an academic himself, encouraged Jean-Paul to read as much as he could as soon as he could read.  His literary intake ranged from the French equivalent of the penny dreadfuls to the classics embracing the pages of genres in between.  As soon as Jean-Paul had learnt to write both his Grandfather and mother encouraged him to write stories in notebooks that they were constantly buying for him.

It is only in part two of the book that he looks at himself as a writer with all the philosophical introspection he could muster.  This introspection leads the reader down avenues lined with words.  Some with dead ends and others that lead on to more thoughts about writing and life’s influences both from childhood and adulthood.

Here a few quotes from this part of the book:

  • ….if I go a day without writing, the scar burns me

(I am sure this a feeling common to all writers.)

  • …..catching living things in the trap of phrases
  • Our deepest intentions are an inextricable web of plans and evassions
  • Benard lived so little that he did not really die

(Writing about a schoolboy friend who died at a very young age after being constantly ill.)

  • I grew up a rank weed, on the compost-heap of catholicity, my roots sucked up its juices and from them I made my sap

I did say at the beginning that I was not quite sure if I would read another book by Sartre having read this one.  The reason for stewing this doubt is that I have read other similar books by writers like Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf as first forays into their work.  Then, having enjoyed those first forays so much I have so often found reading another book by them has tarnished the magic of that first literary encounter.  It is a bit like having baked beans on toast for lunch.  There is a quality about that first portion that makes you want to have seconds but somehow the second serving never tastes quite as good.

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About alangrenville

I live in southern Britain near the fabulous New Forest. While studying for a BSc in International Studies I have developed a strong belief in 'NIBAW' or 'nothing is black and white'. Hence my favourite saying "Too often we...enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought" (John F Kennedy).
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